A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in an airport bookstore feeling annoyed. We were about to board a 10-hour flight with an 8-year-old, and I wanted to find a book to keep her occupied. There was no lack of options — the kids’ section took up several shelves. The problem wasn’t selection, it was tone; every book I opened was loaded with snark.
When did snarkiness become a defining feature of children’s fiction? I grew up with books like Charlotte’s Web, A Wrinkle in Time and Huckleberry Finn. Sure, Tom Sawyer did a little wisecracking now and then, but there wasn’t this constant stream of sarcasm and irritability. Why do today’s books seem so different from the ones I loved as a kid? Where did all this sass and petulance come from? Then it dawned on me: This was premature adolescence.
It’s not just books. These days, television and movies for grade-schoolers are just as full of teenage angst and attitude. This is the new prototype for the characters they see: the snarky adolescent. How did that happen, and why?
It’s not that children have changed so dramatically; young kids have always emulated older ones. Even when I was a kid, acting older made you seem popular and cool — or at least we hoped it would.
Marketing hasn’t changed much either. Capitalism has always been good at creating and satisfying desires. In America, the surest way to make a boatload of money is to identify a longing, whip it up into a popular trend, and fulfill it for a price. The thing is, kids don’t have much money, so they aren’t the greatest customers on their own. Their parents, on the other hand, have desires too, and bank accounts to go with them.
Kids want a lot of things. They want to eat ice cream and potato chips for dinner. They want to adopt a whole litter of Rottweiler puppies. They want to play with lit matches and sharp knives. As parents, we usually understand that it’s more important to give them what they need than what they want. But what if what they want is something that we want just as badly?
My parents defined their role narrowly. Their basic approach was to feed me, shelter me, educate me, and keep me from disgracing my family. My self-esteem (or lack of it) wasn’t their concern. Today’s parents are different. We believe it’s our duty to protect our kids from emotional pain — especially the kind that we experienced when we were kids. And since most of us spent our childhoods suffering from various degrees of dorky, pimply and embarrassed, we’d do almost anything to save them from that fate. In our heart of hearts, we want them to be cool.
Snarkiness is like armor. A well-timed “whatever” or a well-executed eye roll can fend off the attacks of others, and hold back the waves of insecurity from within. If you don’t care about anything, you don’t risk disappointment or shame. You’re safe.
Teenagers resort to snark because they’re under attack from all sides. Every day, they swim in the shark tank of social media, and there’s always blood in the water. Their bodies are changing as if they’ve been invaded by aliens. Their brains are contorting into new, unfamiliar shapes, and their executive function is blinking on and off just when they need it most, like a defective flashlight in a horror film. No wonder they put on armor. If they could, they’d lock themselves in a concrete bunker.
Teenagers are one thing, but the problem with feeding grade-schoolers all that snark is that they don’t need it yet. Armor works both ways: it repels attacks, but it also blocks intimacy. It hides weakness, but it obscures curiosity and joy as well. It creates a barrier at the worst possible time, when what our kids need most is to open up to the possibilities of the world.
I don’t know how to fix this, but I think parents can make a difference. The mass-market snarking of childhood is powered by our credit cards. As long as we’re buying snark, someone will always be happy to sell it. What would happen, though, if we used our buying power to demand something else? Humility. Kindness. Authenticity. What books, movies and role models could we give our children then?
When you have young kids, that long, lovely season between their last diaper and their first driver’s license doesn’t last forever. Adolescence blows in soon enough. Winter is coming. There’s plenty of time for cool later on. Maybe now is the time to work on character, while we still can.
Jeff Lee still isn’t even remotely cool in Seattle.
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